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Rail/road crashes - stop fiddling, start doing


Two separate incidents last week at Blackpool and Halling once again highlighted the potential for catastrophe when vehicles crash onto railway lines and showed that nothing has changed since the Selby crash in March.

Ten people died at Selby after a Land Rover and trailer sped off the M62 just outside Manchester into the path of trains on the mainline railway. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott launched two working groups, one led by the Highways Agency the other by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), to investigate and recommend action where appropriate. Both are expected to complete their work in the autumn.

But we are clearly not doing enough. As engineers our job is to assess risks and design accordingly. However, it seems that neither the resources nor the will is there to help initiate change and prevent more accidents.

Thankfully it is rare for a vehicle to crash or lose control and end up on a railway line. But while accidents as serious as Selby are even rarer, Railtrack still reports a 'vehicle on the tracks' incident about once a fortnight.

It is also true that the Highways Agency working group's study of design standards, the location of barriers and advance warning signs will report back good and considered views. Similarly the HSE's review of past incidents will allow us to learn from them and identify any black-spots or common features of such accidents.

However, in my view, the engineering profession is still fiddling at the edges. For a start the Highways Agency group's focus is on the containment of vehicles on motorways and trunks roads. There is local authority representation on the group, but that is concentrating mainly on standards for roads with speeds of over 80km/h.

This rules out the majority of local roads in the UK, which according to information published recently by NCE, present the biggest risk.

Add to this the fact that many such incidents are not investigated by the police. If no one is hurt or no laws are broken, the actual circumstances may not be available to the HSE's study.

So in a few months time it is likely the government will be presented with some very interesting and very well thought through reports. But they may not actually make much difference in reality.

What is needed is hard data.

Armed with information about where the potential risk areas are, engineers will then stand a chance of doing something about the problem.

It is a big job to look at the entire rail network and identify potential conflicts, but not an impossible one. Everything is mapped and videoed, and a swift virtual drive around the network would pinpoint sites worth investigating. Local knowledge could then confirm and prioritise remedial work.

We have the skills and the knowledge to carry out this work and reduce the risk of accidents. It might take a dedicated team a few months to carry the work out properly and this will cost money. But the engineering profession must be given the resources to be proactive and take action.

Without it we will simply continue to be blamed for not taking action when the inevitable accidents occur. Cash and resources are needed so that this work can start now.

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